04/13/2011 09:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2011

Passionate Senior Citizens Rule Classrooms Into Their 80s, 90s

In a time when almost half of America's teachers call it quits after five years, there are a few octogenarians and nonagenarians who continue to inspire and instruct the next generation into their golden years. Far surpassing standard ages for retirement, these seniors are still going strong.

Agnes Zhelesnik, who is 97 years old, is the oldest teacher in America. She was featured on ABC recently, not only for being the nation's oldest teacher, but also because she continues to approach her craft with creativity and diligence.

Lovingly referred to as "Granny," Zhelesnik uses innovative strategies to teach the preschoolers at the Sundance School in New Jersey where she has worked for the last 15 years, such as baking banana bread to talk about the letter "N," as it appears twice in the word banana.

"We'll soon do 'g' for 'gingersnaps,' so the kids learn."

Zhelesnik teaches classes Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and volunteers extra time after school to teach sewing.

"I have a sewing class, about six girls, and they love to sew."


Zhelesnik is not alone. Dale Swall has been teacher for more than half a century and, as he reports to the Dallas News:

"I'll stay as long as the school will let me."

The 81-year-old is a fourth-grade teacher at Hebron Valley Elementary School in Carrollton, Texas. He started his teaching career in 1954 and has been involved in educating youth in countries all over the world, including Peru, Chile, Germany, and Columbia. Swall has also served as a school superintendent and principal.

He has worked to ensure equal opportunities for disadvantaged students, pioneering a scholarship program in Columbia that has enabled them to have the chance to reach their potential.

"I was a poor student and didn't know what my future would be," Pedro "Pete" Pelaez, a student who was awarded the scholarship said. "He changed my life."

Fellow teacher, Rochelle Masinelli, comments that Swall's enthusiasm for teaching is reflected in the energy he exhibits despite his age.

"He's the first person to get to school every day, and he's the last one to leave. He's even at the school on the weekends, doing paperwork."

Swall attributes good eating and exercise habits for his health, but explains that it is his passion for teaching that keeps him going.

"It sounds trite, but I love working with kids," Swall said. "Helping and working with people is the best thing you can do."

Rose "Mama G" Gilbert is a teaching icon and local hero at her school in Pacific Palisades, Calif. MSNBC reports that at 92 she is still a dynamo, donning costumes and using props to exhibit her enthusiasm for the literature and poetry she teaches to her four AP literature high school classes at Palisades Charter High School. Gilbert's story goes further than her teaching style, however. She is a millionaire. Her call to teaching stems solely from passion, she explains.

"I want them all to just live literature, love poetry and love life -- not just get caught up in grades."

Gilbert began teaching in the 1940s and has taught at Palisades Charter since it opened in 1961. Countless students, who she affectionately refers to as "bubbelahs," have been touched and inspired by her quirky teaching style and formidable spirit.

Holly Korbonski, who is a former student and current college commented to MSNBC about Gilbert's dedication.

"I think people are deeply respectful of Rose. I think we have a sense of what this job means to her."

According to the Palisades Post, last year Gilbert was named Palisades "Citizen of the Year" for her contribution to the school. She financed the Maggie Gilbert Aquatic Center at Palisades Charter High School, donating $2.1 million in addition to a $750,000 loan, to honor her daughter Maggie, former Junior Olympics swimmer, who died of an embolism in 2004.

Wrote Interim Principal Marcia Haskin in her nomination letter: 'Walk by Room A204 any day of the week and you will see 'Mama G. on fire,' standing at her podium, reciting poetry or explicating text from assigned reading. The students are rapt with attention and truly comprehend that they are being taught by a veritable 'celebrity' in the world of education.'

But being an elderly educator doesn't have to be a solitary pursuit. In Minnesota, several seniors have started to dedicate their time to the Minnesota Reading Corps and Math Corps, the Star Tribune reports. For a small stipend, these educators provide struggling students with one-on-one help.

Many hail from other industries, and are using their retirement to give back. Retired Chemist Rodney Spitz is a 75-year-old Math Corps member who helps students master math at Sunrise Elementary School in North Branch.

"I'm certainly enjoying myself," said Spitz, who has six children and 12 grandchildren. "I love working with the kids. I think they're progressing well."

The slim $900-a-month stipend these seniors receive illustrates their pursuit as a selfless one. Dawn McLean, who dedicates 40 hours a week to serve students at a Minneapolis preschool program at the YWCA, explained that it is more about giving back than getting paid.

"If you teach children to read, they can read to learn for the rest of their lives," McLean said. "You want to leave things better than when you found them."

Recruitment and Outreach Manager Anna Peters told the Tribune about the 52 seniors currently who serve in the Minnesota Reading and Math Corps.

"For older adults especially," said Peters, "service can be an excellent way to leave a lasting and needed legacy for kids who need the extra support to succeed."

Support these ambitious and dedicated seniors by donating or signing up to be a Minnesota Math Corps or Reading Corps Member.